Sudanese diaspora, religious leaders share stories of hope

[Episcopal News Service] When Manyok Khoc, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, arrived in Ethiopia as a 13-year-old refugee he was barefoot and illiterate, speaking only his native language of Dinka.

Now a 36-year-old U.S. citizen, he stands in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, in dress shoes and a blazer, speaking fluent English, with several years of higher education and a successful career to his name. He has come to the parish with around 45 other Sudanese to hear an Oct. 17 presentation from an ecumenical delegation of religious leaders from Sudan.

The delegation is in the United States to shine a light on the precarious political situation in Sudan, which is poised to conduct a historic referendum on Jan. 9 to determine whether the southern part of the country will become independent from the north.

“It is one of those line-in-the-sand moments in Sudan,” said Richard Parkins, director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church in Sudan – one of the event’s sponsors. (Other sponsors were Caritas, the Episcopal Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.) “Will this divorce be a peaceful one or will it precipitate violence?”

“Now my country gets only my voice,” says Khoc, a former boy solider who converted to Christianity in the Ethiopian refugee camp. “But I need to tell the international community that if there is a way you can help my people … Help them.”

Khoc and other diaspora Sudanese are eligible to vote in the referendum, and he plans to do so and “contribute to the freedom of our country.”

Others, like St. Paul’s parishioners Nyibol Ajak, a young mother and recent immigrant, and Chol Agoot, a 27-year-old Lost Boy who is now father to a 3-year-old daughter, also plan to vote.

“It’s a good sign,” Agoot says. “The Sudanese are ready to move forward and take matters into our own hands. Before we used to beg and beg and beg. Definitely, I will vote.”

Independence would be like “a dream come true,” he adds. “This is what we southerners have been fighting for. I lost my father in the war, and [independence] won’t bring him back. But if we did it, it would bring him back,” he said, tapping his heart through his suit jacket.

Like Khoc, Agoot arrived in the U.S. about 10 years ago with his younger brother. Before that, he lived in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, where he says every day was dominated by the stress of survival. (Kakuma means “nowhere” in Swahili.) Now he is studying for his master’s degree in public administration at the University of the District of Columbia and sends money earned at part-time and seasonal jobs to his mother and grandmother, who live in Jonglei state in southern Sudan.

From the visiting delegation, he has learned that “the church is an important component of politics in southern Sudan,” he says – “that’s good.” He also has learned that 60 percent of those registered to vote in the referendum must participate in order for the results to be accepted.

“If you are committing yourself to register and you are not committing yourself to vote you will be attacking the system,” Khoc says, pointing out that the voting process is complex, but necessary. But he is no stranger to challenge, and his faith has sustained him through more hardships than most people encounter in a lifetime.

“In the Bible they talk about the difficulties, the tears, the wisdom – so many things,” he says. “Like Job. When Job was ill he lost a lot of his cattle, sheep and even his kid and he doesn’t forget God – he has hope. So I learned something: You will suffer, you will not have food, you will be starving, you will not have shelter. But one day, you will be somewhere else.”

If the referendum passes and independence follows, Khoc plans to remain in the U.S., although he has many family members still in Sudan.

“I do understand that if I’m here and I contribute my skills, assistance and what my country needs, that will be better than if I move there and do not contribute what people need,” he said, quoting John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” a message he thinks people everywhere should take to heart.

Agoot hopes to return to southern Sudan. “Home is home,” he said.

Meanwhile, St. Paul’s has served as a spiritual home for many of the area’s Sudanese, according to its rector, the Rev. Oran Warder. The Northern Virginia congregations of Christ, Alexandria and St. Mary’s, Arlington also have strong connections with the Sudanese community.

The parish initially helped with resettling refugees and “eventually that grew into a worshipping community,” Warder said. St. Paul’s also has a long-standing relationship with Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, who served at the parish as a seminarian during his time at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Deng is a member of the delegation, along with Roman Catholic Auxilliary Bishop Daniel Adwok of Khartoum; Roman Catholic Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban of Torit; the Rev. Ramadan Chan, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches; and the Rev. Sam Kobia, Sudan envoy for the All Africa Conference of Churches (formerly general secretary of the World Council of Churches).

The delegation’s message: that the Jan. 9 referendum date is “sacrosanct and cannot be postponed”; that unity, advocated by some in the north of the country, is not a viable option for the south; that the situation is extremely volatile and “we don’t want to go back to war.”

The referendum is one of the major terms of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 by the two warring parties – Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the south and the north’s Khartoum-based Government of Sudan. The CPA ended a 21-year civil war – fought by the Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south – that killed more than 2 million people and displaced an estimated 7 million more.

“We have come to sound the alarm,” Kobia said. “Given the position of the two protagonists, the north and the south, the result will be disputed, so we need the help of the international community to help it be resolved. The referendum cannot take place in a peaceful manner if there is no guarantee of security. Everything should be done to ensure that people can go to vote on Jan. 9. Everyone eligible to vote should go and register to vote so they can vote on Jan. 9.

And, Taban added, like Moses in the Book of Exodus: “We are asking you to pray very hard.”

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